Mike Konczal has an interesting piece on how the progressives are unlikely to win over Trump’s base of white, male, working class voters – even if they take their concerns to heart and propose policies that will help them. He thinks progressives lack specificity and clarity on the “specific approaches and programs [that] would convince Trump’s voters to join liberals.” More fatally, he believes the progressive agenda, if successfully implemented, would actually fail to bring these voters along.
Here is the gist of the argument:
“Yet any sufficiently important left project going forward is going to involve at least four things: a more redistributive state, a more aggressive state intervention in the economy, a weakening of the centrality of waged labor, and a broadening, service-based form of worker activism. These four points, essential as they are, will likely further drive Trump’s white working-class supporters away from the left, rather than unite them.”
Konczal might well be right, but I want to entertain the possibility that he is wrong.
The progressives’ preference for specific policies is rooted in the view that voters’ “interests” – as they derive from their occupation, income, race, or gender – are fairly fixed. So policies are winners as long as they appeal to those “interests.”
But there is a complementary perspective in politics that says political competition is as much about shaping those interests. The politics of ideas is about activating identities that may otherwise remain silent, altering perceptions about how the world works, and enlarging the space of what is politically feasible.
If left-liberals take for granted that the white middle class is essentially racist, hate the federal government, oppose progressive taxation, don’t think big banks and dark money are a problem … and so on, then indeed many of the remedies that progressives have to offer will fail to resonate and there is little that can be done. But why should we assume that these are the givens of political life?
A large literature in social psychology and political economy suggests that identities are malleable as are voters’ perceptions of how the world works and therefore which policies serve their interests. A large part of the right’s success derives from their having convinced lower and middle class voters that the government is corrupt and inept. Can’t progressives alter that perception?
Note that what is required here is not one more well-designed program. It is a narrative, a marketing device – a bumper sticker.
Consider one of Konczal’s examples. He mentions Arlie Hochschild’s book Strangers in Their Own Land, which describes people living in the polluted “Cancer Alley” of Louisiana.
“They are people who are conscious of the environmental wreckage industry has brought to their area, yet they vote for people opposed to the Environmental Protection Agency and environmentalism generally.
Hochschild finds that her subjects don’t experience this as a tension because they view the federal government as something that is helping people ‘cut in line.’”
In other words, people dislike and distrust the government. And yes of course, conditional on that belief, the progressives’ agenda of enhanced environmental regulation will not draw the support of the people it tries to help. Same with dealing with the banks, creating more jobs, or progressive taxation.
Clearly, the progressives have lost the war of ideas here – on government as a force for good. Equally clearly, they will not win it by offering detailed policy proposals on each one of these areas.
Progressives need to shape the narrative that structures voters’ interests. They need to be able to appeal to identities beyond race and gender – occupation, social class, income status, and patriotism. They need to convince the electorate that it is their interests they have at heart – not those of bankers or of large corporations. They need to forge a story line that will shape a package of policy proposals into a politically appealing whole.
Progressives need not give up on the white, male working class. But they need to understand that politics is as much about redefining perceptions of interests as it is about responding to those interests.